Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Linda describes the practice of hiring-day, which takes place on January 1. Many slave owners rent their slaves to different owners each year; hiring day is always a time of anxiety, because it can separate slave families or subject them to a cruel master. All the slaves know which planters are best to work for and try everything to get in their employ.
Explaining the mechanics of slave life, Linda focuses on its destructive effect on family structure, appealing to her readers’ sense of the fundamental importance of family.
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Linda imagines the New Year’s celebrations of “you happy free women,” who are able to relax with people they love and kiss their children, from whom no one can legally separate them. She contrasts this with the anxiety of slave mothers, who spend the last night of the year watching their children in sorrow, knowing they may be sold or hired away from them in the morning. While such a woman might be ignorant and “degraded” by her condition, she still has “a mother’s instincts” and feels “a mother’s agonies.”
Linda juxtaposes the feelings that all mothers share with the circumstances that elevate free mothers and oppress enslaved ones. It should feel painfully obvious to read that enslaved mothers love their children just like free ones, but Linda is using fundamentally important concepts like motherhood to compel free readers to identify with the plight of slaves.
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Related Quotes
One hiring day, Linda witnesses a mother’s seven children sold away from her at once. The slave trader can’t even tell her where they’re going, as he’ll sell them wherever they make the most money. The woman prays for God to kill her. Slave owners also try to dispose of elderly and “worn out” slaves on hiring day, selling them to anyone who will pay a few dollars.
Describing an elderly slave as “worn out,” Linda highlights the extent to which slaves are treated like inanimate objects. This gives the lie to arguments slaveholders will make later that their slaves are considered part of the family.
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